Genre: young adult, historical fiction
Published: January 19, 2021 by: Dutton Books for Young Readers
Rating: 4.5/5 stars
CW: anti-Asian racism, lesbophobia, misogyny
It is 1954, and Chinese-American teenager Lily Hu lives in San Francisco with her family during the Red-Scare. Despite being a US citizen, her father faces threats of deportation due to the American government's fears towards communism and their anti-Asian sentiments. Lily tries to be a good daughter, while also trying to decide what kind of future she wants, and what kind of future she will get. One night, Lily meets Kathleen Miller, a charismatic teen who frequents the lesbian bar known as the Telegraph Club. As Lily and Kathleen grow closer, Lily realizes that their relationship is in grave danger, and she seeks to keep her and her new love safe while also keeping her family safe from their own threats.
I don't usually love historical fiction novels, I can sometimes find them rather boring and information-heavy. That being said, I did not find those issues in Last Night at the Telegraph Club. This book was captivating, sad, and well-balanced, full of romantic moments between two teens but also historically accurate events to the time period. I could tell that the author had done extensive research when writing this book, and her author's note indicates that she was able to borrow from her own experiences as a queer Chinese-American woman, telling the story of the people who came before her. This was overall a well-crafted book that I'm glad I read.
While historical fiction books seek to teach me something new about a time in history I'm not all too familiar with, I sometimes find that these books read more like a non-fiction textbook rather than a fiction book. However, Lo strikes a great balance between building up her fictional characters while also providing enough context towards the time period in which she is writing. I never once felt like I was in a long-drawn out history class, rather I was able to learn more about queer history during the 1950's and the history of communism fears in the United States, while also being able to fall in love with the characters and feel connected to their story. I could tell that Lo is passionate about queer history, and I think it is especially important that we remember the experiences of queer people of colour from times past. This book didn't seem fake or overly fictionalized, rather Lo brings these characters to life; their experiences could have been faced by real queer Asian women from the 1950's.
I enjoyed how Lo built up the setting of The Telegraph Club. Seeing Lily really take to the club and finding her identity within the club was really interesting to see, and Lo also includes the harsh realities of running a queer club during the 1950's, when the threats of raids are always looming. Lo includes the representation of drag artists within the club, specifically drag kings, which I loved to see since drag kings are very much underrepresented in mainstream media compared to drag queens. Lily really strikes an interest in drag artistry which matches well with her finding her identity as a queer woman.
Kathleen's and Lily's story is equal parts heartbreaking and inspiring. Watching two girls fall in love during the 1950's is very nerve-wracking, as you just expect that these girls will not be safe. But you will root for them every step of the way. Overall, I enjoyed this book for its attention to historical accuracy and its strong characters and themes. I think people who are particularly wanting to know more about queer history will really need to add this book to their shelves.
Have you read Last Night at the Telegraph Club? What did you think?
Emily @ Paperback Princess